I don’t remember many grammar lessons from junior high school, but for whatever reason, one sentence from the lesson about dangling and misplaced modifiers has stuck with me. Here’s the sentence: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.” Poor Mary! It is exhausting to have to cling to the side of an aquarium that way.

Now, of course, if we heard this sentence, we would probably assume it was the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium, as this is the most logical and sensible interpretation. But if we look closely at the structure of the sentence, the participial phrase “clinging to the side of the aquarium” modifies “Mary” — if we work from the assumption that participles and other modifiers sit next to what they modify. So, this sentence could be “fixed” with alternate versions such as “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, the starfish stared at Mary,” or “Mary saw the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium.”

I used this example last week in my “Grammar Boot Camp” course as a way to introduce dangling participles/modifiers, or “danglers,” as Bryan Garner calls them. Given our ability to interpret most danglers in spoken language without too much effort (if we even notice them), I think students were expecting me to say that we don’t need to worry much about them as writers either. But, in fact, the advice to avoid danglers in writing is generally good advice.

The point of taking a critical and questioning approach to prescriptive usage rules is to determine which ones are worth following because they are helpful in creating clearer, less ambiguous, and/or more aesthetically pleasing prose; which ones are worth following at least some of the time because they are shibboleths that may get our writing (and us) judged as not good enough; and which ones are not worth following because they are out of date, not widely held or known, etc. I think the advice about avoiding danglers falls into the first category. Writing cannot tolerate as much ambiguity as speech because there is less context, and we are not there to clarify if need be; putting modifiers next to the noun phrase they modify makes things easier and clearer for readers. And avoids unintended humor.

I asked students to create some intentionally funny danglers, and here are three where the modifier is “misplaced” (i.e., the intended noun phrase is in the sentence but not next to the modifier):

Oozing slowly across the dish, Kevin watched the egg yolk.

Gasping for his last breath, the professor killed the cockroach.

Grooming each other, my professor and I saw the kittens.

Other examples contained modifiers that were “dangling” in the sense that they referred to the speaker/writer, who does not appear as a noun phrase in the sentence. Consider:

Swimming through the water, the goggles fogged up.

Rushing to submit my homework on time, my computer crashed.

Another example wasn’t especially funny (the students pointed out that being funny on demand is a big ask, which is a completely fair point!), but it raises a key question about when a dangler stops dangling:

Reviewing the final essay, it became apparent students had not studied.

Given the existential it, we as readers know that the participial phrase “reviewing the final essay” is modifying something else: probably the speaker/writer or some understood group of people who are reviewing the students’ final essays. These danglers tend to feel more OK because they come closer to the set of “acceptable danglers,” sometimes called “disguised conjunctions.”

With participles such as considering, assuming, given, regarding, owing (to), speaking (of), and a few others, editors tend to allow the participial phrase to function adverbially, modifying the entire sentence. For example:

Considering the danger, she is lucky to have gotten out alive.

Even taking all these factors into account, a team cannot win without strong defense.

H.W. Fowler raises the interesting question of when this kind of participle becomes acceptable as a “disguised conjunction/preposition.” How would we know? He uses the example of referring to. He compares these two openings to a sentence:

Referring to your letter, you do not state …

Referring to your letter, I find that you do not state …

To start to answer that question, I went to the academic section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found almost all instances of sentence-initial “referring to … ” have the relevant noun right after the phrase (e.g., “Referring to X, the author argues … ”). But there are certainly exceptions, such as: “Referring to Figure 2, the presence of the safety provisions shifts the demand curve up.” So usage suggests that editors, at least, continue to see referring to as a participial modifier, requiring writers to juxtapose a noun phrase for it to modify. But it is certainly not confusing to write “Referring to Figure 2, the data … ” Nor is it ungrammatical.